A Journey Into the Depths of Public Speaking

When I hit the stage I was calm and collected. But for three months prior everything else in my life suffered. I was nervous. Three months of slow-burning, consistent, low-level dread.

Fantasy and Reality

I listened to an interview today. A comedian spoke about how a stand-up performance dismissed his depression. Many years ago, his girlfriend encouraged him to try an open mic night. After some dark months, she had said “you’ve got to go see if you can do this”. He did, and five minutes before his act, he was so nervous he vomited. It sounded like a train wreck waiting to happen.

He walked onto the stage. Looking at the room, he felt a wave of relaxation wash over him. There must be a name for this phenomenon. The tipping moment - wherein three months of dark fantasy materialize into the present moment. A reality in which everything is peculiarly…ok. I had that feeling. His experience that night was so positive, he never stopped.

Preparation

I never felt ready. Although I had prepared plenty, without procrastinating, I wasn’t even ready ninety minutes before the talk. I was pinned between a hotel bed and mirror with my macbook elevated on an ice bucket. I was thinking “Maybe I’ve practiced this too much”.

I had practiced it maybe ten times. On the day of the talk, I abandoned my notes. I gave it a shot from memory, slides-only. I recalled a lot more than I expected, but I got stuck multiple times. It felt better though, it felt like the right call.

In the places where I got stuck, I added slides to help me remember. Those slides turned out to be my best. This one reminded me to talk about “immersion”.

joel railsconf

Every time I’d prepare in a new way, I’d gain a different kind of confidence.

In my hotel, I began to record myself and listen. When a section started sounding natural, I’d move on. It can be painful to hear yourself. It’s amazing how oblivious you are to your own mannerisms. But the improvement was so visceral, I’d extend it into my life if I could. In utopian future I’ll improve myself each night, reviewing video recordings of my daily activities, Beyoncé style. Doubtful, I haven’t even watched this yet. Too painful.

Validation

The most crucial form of confidence I gained was validation. Validation that my talk was something worth talking about. I got my first taste of validation ten days prior. I gave the first run-through to a local group, and got a good response from my friends. In hindsight, it seems reckless to seek that for the first time, with less than two weeks to go.

Two days prior to the talk I demoed it again. It was an opportunity. At the conference, I tweeted at a very interested person and asked for help. He didn’t know me from Adam. After helping me, he asked to see it. When he liked it, it was a huge boost for me.

Funny thing about validation, it’s only good when someone else gives it to you. So go get some.

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